ISTANBUL: Turkey said on Tuesday it is ready for talks with Greece without preconditions about an escalating row over eastern Mediterranean gas that saw the two uneasy Nato allies stage rival military exercises.
The olive branch came ahead of an informal EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Berlin on Thursday and Friday at which Greece is expected to press the bloc to slap biting sanctions on its historic regional rival.
But EU nations would prefer to avoid irritating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas shuttled between Athens and Ankara in a bid to temper the rhetoric and get talks back on track.
At stake is Europe’s secure access to newly-discovered gas reserves as well as the stability of both Nato and the entire volatile region, which includes war-torn Libya and Egypt.
Maas secured only lukewarm promises from Greek and Turkish officials, who continued to air their grievances in the dispute.
“We are in favour of negotiations for fair sharing (of the gas) but nobody should lay down preconditions,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said after the talks in Ankara.
“This cannot happen with preconditions laid down by Greece.”
After his own meeting with Maas, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said Athens was “ready for dialogue – but this dialogue cannot take place under (Turkish) threats”.
Completing his delicate mission, Maas conceded that the dispute had entered a “very critical” phase. Nevertheless, “no one wants to solve this issue in a militaristic way,” Maas said through a translator, “and there is a willingness on both sides for dialogue.”
Greece’s maritime claims are backed by the entire EU, but the bloc has so far held back from heavily sanctioning Ankara out of fears that Erdogan would follow through with threats to unleash a wave of migrants now living in Turkey.
The top Turkish diplomat praised the German mediation effort but said Ankara had made a good faith gesture by announcing a pause to its exploration activity last month.
Cavusoglu argued that Turkey only resumed its work when Greece signed an agreement with Egypt to set up an exclusive economic zone on Aug 6, violating a general sense of goodwill.
The Greek parliament is expected to ratify the contentious agreement on Wednesday.
“I would like to advise Greece … to abandon its spoilt (behaviour),” Cavusoglu said.
“Act with common sense,” he told Athens, warning that Turkey was ready to “do what’s necessary without any hesitation”.
Meanwhile, Erdogan on Wednesday warned Turkey would make “no concessions” in the eastern Mediterranean and told Greece to avoid taking steps that could lead to its “ruin”.
His remarks come just hours after Athens said it would launch military exercises Wednesday with France, Italy and Cyprus in the region, where tensions between the two neighbours have escalated in recent weeks.
“In the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea, Turkey will get what is rightfully ours,” Erdogan said in the eastern province of Mus on the anniversary of the 1071 Battle of Malazgirt where pre-Ottoman tribes defeated the Byzantines.
The victory has been celebrated with increasing fervour in modern Turkey in recent years, and this year was no different with a socially-distanced audience listening to Erdogan.
“We don’t have our eye on someone else’s territory, sovereignty and interests, but we will make no concessions on that which is ours,” he said in the televised speech.
“We invite our counterparts to change their ways and avoid wrongs that will be the path to ruin,” Erdogan added in pointed remarks to Nato ally Greece.
“We want everyone to see Turkey is no longer a country whose patience, determination, means and courage will be tested. If we say we will do something, we will do it, and we will pay the price,” he said.
Greece and Turkey are already divided on significant issues including migration and Byzantine heritage in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople.
But the discovery of hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean has further strained relations, with Turkey rejecting calls from the EU and Athens to immediately stop energy exploration in the region. — AFP